An unexpected warmth greets me at Brooklyn Steel. Defying the industrial structure, a pink tropical backdrop hangs over a stage flanked by palm fronds, which seem to wave at the sold-out crowd. It is a set-up that hints at one of two possible realities: 1) A lush, theatrical performance by headliner Perfume Genius is in store. 2) The atmosphere is merely consistent with their recent press shots.
I am desperately hoping for the former, but having never before seen Mike Hadreas and company in concert, the night’s fate is unknown. Fortunately, the décor suits opening act Serpentwithfeet just fine. The occult-gospel-cum-jazz outfit helmed by Josiah Wise opens with sparse, chilling pieces. I say pieces because “song” seems too limiting a word for the confessional poems and trip hop ballads sprinkled throughout Serpentwithfeet’s set; perhaps “spells” would be more fitting. Wise conveys great range as a vocal performer and pianist, yes, but also in his wit and charisma, which has the early-bird crowd tearfully singing along one moment and laughing the next. I can’t help but wonder if his theatrics will be echoed by Hadreas.
My thirst for drama is quenched the moment Perfume Genius appears, slinking on stage to the violent, Rococo strings of “Choir” from their recent LP No Shape. Hadreas saunters towards us in a white Byron blouse tucked into a pinstripe jumpsuit – the latter looking like it once strutted the runways of Vivienne Westwood.
It is such a powerful entrance, that I’m nearly knocked over when the four piece then open with “Otherside.” In its first minute, No Shape’s commencing track disguises itself as a fragile piano ballad – a lullaby even. But after Hadreas coos, “rocking you to sleep from the otherside,” a cannon of bass, glitter, and wailing angels is shot through our organs, leaving us shuddering and primed for more.
“Otherside” is the one moment of austerity before Hadreas changes shape, shifting into an undulating lord of seduction; part Morrissey, part Annie Lennox, and part Peter Pan. He gyrates and circles his hips, popping one pale shoulder out of his crisp shirt and then slipping it back in again. Hadreas is at his most vampish on cuts like “Go Ahead” and the dark Elvis romp “My Body” off of 2014’s breakout album Too Bright.
Thunderous jungle drums sew the set together, adding a sinister undercurrent to the evening. The performance feels slightly intoxicating; like, say, a fine perfume should. I find myself wrapped in chills throughout, and plumbed with pumping hot blood. Hadreas is the performer we’ve been waiting for. He whets our appetite with opulent musicality and erotic posturing, but nourishes us with complex song structure, poignant lyrics, and gorgeous instrumentation. He is, as they say, a package deal.
Such a package in fact, that little whiffs of his component scents start cropping up as he performs. I’m smelling Kate Bush, Little Richard, Portishead, The Cramps, Madame Butterfly, and the soundtrack to Twin Peaks. But like a fragrance, the sum of its parts reveals something entirely new when mixed properly.
During Perfume Genius’ five-song encore (a formality I typically hate, but was ecstatic for in this situation) Hadreas sat down for a piano rendition of “Mr. Peterson,” from his debut record Learning. Before he began, he motioned long-time boyfriend and bandmate Alan Wyffels to the keyboard, where they played a duet to an ooh-ing audience. And then, the band reassembled for the one moment I’d predicted correctly all evening: the finale was Too Bright’s shining anthem “Queen.” But despite my suspicions, Hadreas did not sashay away at the song’s end. He simply walked, and waved, and thanked us.